Ashley Proctor talking about Community at Coworking Unconference Asia

Community – Ashley Proctor – CUAsia’18 Academy

Ashley Proctor, Executive Director of 312 Main,  talked on ‘Community’ at the Coworking Unconference Asia – CUAsia 2018 Academy, taking place at Wawasan Open University in Penang, Malaysia.

Before diving into her topic, she made herself more familiar with the audience by sharing her background information.  She has been involved in building collaborative communities since 2003. Her hometown is Toronto, Canada; it is where she built her coworking spaces. Ashley designed and launched the Xpace (2004), Creative Blueprint (2006) and Foundery (2011) coworking communities, artist studios & event spaces in Toronto, ON and Seattle, WA. With so many incredible coworking spaces in Toronto, they decided to partner with all of them and created a collective called Coworking Toronto collective; they later on expanded to cover all the spaces in Ontario calling it Coworking Ontario collective. From there she launched COHIP – the world’s first Coworking Health Insurance Plan – providing affordable and accessible health and dental benefits for all independent workers in Canada. She is also the executive producer of GCUC Canada, which is part of a global coworking network of conferences. Current, Ashley is focused on building a 105,000 square foot coworking community in the heart of the downtown east side of Vancouver, DC.

Her experience as an artist made her think of “building a community in the way that you would layer paint on a canvas.” Ashley began her topic by sharing tips on “Community Building 101 – 10 steps to building an awesome coworking community.”

Step1: The first step is to know your market; this comes in a few different forms, starting with getting to know your neighborhood. There’s a reason you chose that specific area to operate your space in, try to discover a new aspect of the neighborhood that could help differentiate you from other spaces.  Another way to do your research would be to tour other collaborative spaces,  not just coworking spaces, but any space that puts people and community at heart; such as artist work studios, coworking spaces, universities, libraries, etc. While you are doing that, Ashley suggests checking out your competition and making friends with them, because they are your potential collaborators; so, introduce yourself and ask a lot of questions on what’s working and what’s missing.

Step 2: You need to get to know your members. To truly understand what needs of your members are not being met, you need to have conversations with the people who are eventually going to use your space. You could even do some serious market research to figure out what they are willing to pay. Some members will be more willing to contribute regarding time rather than money, so that is another question to ask them.  Ashley believes that most coworking members want to be part of something bigger than them; they want to expand their networks, increase their productivity, meet new people and share ideas. “So when you are building your community, it is essential to dive deep into why it is that they want to be members of your coworking space in the first place,” said Ashley.

Step 3: To build a supportive team. This team could be made up of ‘super members,’ people who are interested in joining your space. They are not only limited to the team of staff; they can be friends or allies; they could be the other coworking operators in the same city. The idea is to surround yourself with people who are supportive of your plan and what you are trying to build; especially if you are doing it in a market where coworking is a new concept.

Step 4: It is essential to building your community before building the space. This approach is going to solve a lot of problems in advance. There are members waiting to move in when their section opens in the building in Vancouver, DC. They are launching it floor by floor, as each becomes full, so they are never at a point where they are paying to operate the space without it being full. It has been in process for three years; however, they have managed to build a community without paying rent, host events off-site and even facilitate connections between members. She followed the same concept with her other spaces including Xspace, which was wildly successful because the members told her what they wanted, and that’s what was built for them. Ashley states, “This can save you a lot of time and money.”

Step 5: You must involve the members in the important decisions. There are few different reasons for this, one being the fact that you are building the space for them. The other reason is that they will become invested when they are engaged. It might take a few forms, such as getting the members to help you move the furniture if you are relocating; or make the members make coffee and snacks for each other, rather than having someone paid to do it for them.  This approach increases the sense of well being and investment into the space itself. People will take care of the space that they’ve helped to build. You could even have them participate in the events that you host.  

Step 6: Don’t be afraid to curate your community. When starting out, most coworking spaces will take the first people who will pay to use the space; usually, this is because they have rent to pay. Ashley suggests, “If you are opening with your community in place first, then curating is something that you can afford to do, which is really to pick best of the best members.” Even if you have a space that is targeted to one market, such as artists; you can still look for diversity among the artists, such as graphic designer, illustrators, sculptor, painter, etc. You can use the support team that you’ve built to reach the networks that you want to engage as well.

Step 7: Animate the community with member events. It does not necessarily meet your needs as a space operator; it is something by the members for the members. Variety is critical in the spaces Ashley operates. Such as variety regarding timing, certain people can attend different events at a different time of day. Regarding cost, many of them are free events, some of them are paid. Variety concerning the effort involved; sometimes you just have to roll out of your desk and into the kitchen to attend an event, and sometimes you need to show up dressed in a certain way and invest some time and energy. There is also variety concerning the topics and the methods used since people learn in different ways. In addition to animating the community through events, you can also do it through communications, such as through Slack and Facebook groups your members engaged.

Step 8: Inviting people to experience your community. It is really important that there are free opportunities for people to try what it is that you are doing, such as free trial and events. You can have your members hand out passes to friends and family who want to come and try it. One of Ashley’s successful promotions in Seattle includes giving members the opportunity to give away five free trial days a month. This word of mouth process brings in new members who are already connected to people who are working in your space.

Step 9: Cultivate your community in your daily actions. It is all about setting the tone for your members and leading by example. You need to be present in the space, not just as an owner or operator, but also as a member. You need to ask questions and make connections and be engaged in what the other members are doing.  Although, some coworking spaces have hosts who are connectors, community animators or community cultivators that take on this role; it is vital for you to model that behavior first and foremost.

Step 10: Community building is an ongoing process. Once you put those efforts in place, your strong community will attract strong community members. “Sooner, rather than later you’ll start to see the quality of your members will increase over time, they’ll stay longer, they’ll be more invested, they’ll give more of them to others because you’ve already created that base, that natural environment for them to do so” stated Ashley.  

Ashley’s inspiring talk did not end there. A Q&A session with the audience followed it. Mentioned below are some of the exchanges between her and the audience.

“How have you approached building a team that engages and curates your community?”

It depends on the revenue you are working, so it scales with your staff team. When operating a smaller space, anything under 15,000 square feet, the first two years it was just Ashley and few of the members working on building the community. There are ways that a small space can scale in growth, for example; they do a lot of work-trade programs. They have some members who have a part-time membership to the space in exchange for being a community cultivator or host or community animator. The best community host tends to be the community members, a concept that does not cost anything more than the use of a desk.

          In larger spaces, such as the Vancouver project, they have a team of 45 staff, 27 volunteers to run seven floors. Those 27 volunteers are the hands-on people who are carrying out the community building action every day in the space. The Vancouver space is based on democratic engagement and is also built as a community co-op. The members own the space and are also involved in the governance of the space.

You mentioned, “don’t be afraid to curate the community.” What are you defining as curating the community first and how do you curate?

“It starts at the very beginning, with the marketing” states Ashley. Most people are coming to their spaces through word of mouth; they are already a level up concerning knowing how to work in a coworking space and wanting to be a part of this specific community.  She also uses another method, as part of the tour; at the very end, she offers them a postcard with the websites for others spaces in the city. She then suggests them to check out the competition and advises the potential members to find the space that is right for them. If they want to join, then they come back and join. To sign up for membership online, the interested party will have to come in for the tour first, and she also interviews to figure out what they are contributing to the community.

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